“Are you a cat person or a dog person?” You’d be hard-pressed to find an ice breaker that appropriately and accurately breaks more first dates down into binary statistical categories. We’re allowed to like and even love both, but we all know everybody holds a greater affection for one over the other.
So which are you, a dog person or a cat person? There is actually plenty of scientific research digging into what the answer to that question reveals about a person. For example, self-identified dog people tend to be less neurotic than cat people, they’re less likely to suppress emotions, and they tend to have overall higher scores of wellbeing than cat people. It doesn’t seem like such a simple and harmless first date question anymore, does it? According to statistics from the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA), more than 60 million households in America have a dog at home and just over 47 million have cats, suggesting that Americans are mostly dog people. In 2014, Psychology Today reported that small children prefer dogs to cats — and even to Teddy bears — at a much higher margin just by comparing photos of the animals’ faces side by side.
"The appreciation of less-popular animals, like cats, probably needs time to develop, and appears to be more dependent on their physical appeal and on our contacts with them,” the report read, suggesting that there’s something innate about our proclivity to loving canines over just about any other domesticated animal. In that study, there was a belief that the cute, fuzzy, infantile appearance of dogs has a more natural appeal for people.
According to a new study from Dr. Colleen Kirk of the New York Institute of Technology, there actually is a more in-depth answer behind our affection toward canines. The title of her paper, “Dogs have masters, cats have staff: Consumers' psychological ownership and their economic valuation of pets,” pretty much gives us the answer as determined by Kirk. While we truly want to see our dogs as a part of our family, Kirk’s report points out that the psychology of our affection is driven by perceived ownership of that dog. It’s actually more revealing of us than it is of anything admirable about dogs themselves because Kirk points out that this feeling of ownership has less to do with an actual measure of self-investment than it does a desire for control. If it says anything about dogs or cats at all, it’s that we instinctively know or at least believe that dogs are more apt to be controlled than cats. Or as author Mary Bly put it, "Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you."
Dr. Kirk learned all this through three separate studies/surveys. First was a survey aimed at measuring psychological ownership, a level of control involved in caring for either pet (cats or dogs), and how much self-investment was involved in their caretaking. She asked things like how much money a pet owner was willing to spend on hypothetical life-saving procedures or even everyday items like food and the results revealed that people are more likely to pay more of their money for any of these things on dogs than they are cats, suggesting both a higher attachment to the animal as well as a greater burden of ownership.
The second survey built off of the first, asking “Now, for the rest of the survey, imagine that your pet had originally lived with someone else. Imagine that the pet's behavior as you know it is entirely the result of any training that someone else did before you got the pet.”
Sure enough, the findings again proved that a sense of ownership is linked to a person’s attachment to their pet, as the dog owners were suddenly less willing to spend as much money on the dog in which they’d hypothetically had less time and attention invested in training. Much like a hand-me-down pair of jeans or a used car, pet owners had a weaker attachment to their pup when it had hypothetically been cared for and trained by another person first.
The final part of the study acted as a control for this idea of actually owning a dog, taking into account that people can and often do grow a strong attachment to dogs that aren’t their own. Again, people are most willing to spend the most money on their own pet and additionally showed that their emotional attachment to a dog was due to the sense of control they felt. And perhaps the most revealing part of the three studies as it pertains to that whole “cat people versus dog people” conversation is that when the dogs were described in the survey with behavior typically associated with cats, the ownership effect diminished. And yet again, when cats were described with dog-like behavior in the study, the ownership effect increased.
“Consumers place a higher economic valuation on dogs versus cats, as evidenced by a willingness to pay more for life-saving surgery, medical expenses, and specialty pet products, as well as increased word-of-mouth about the pet,” Kirk wrote in her report. “This effect is explained by consumers' enhanced psychological ownership of and resulting emotional attachment to the pet. The effect is reversed when a dog acts like a cat and a cat acts like a dog and is due to the perceived ability to control the animal's behavior rather than other attributes intrinsic to the pet. This research offers
So as it appears, much of our affinity toward dogs is derived from our own desire for control, which produces a stronger emotional attachment than what we typically build with cats. Nonetheless, this is all still pretty revealing about the connection between domesticated dogs and people, which has been built over thousands of years.